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Friday, May 7, 2010

This Is Your Brain: A Brief Primer on the Perils of Neuroscience

This Is Your Brain:

A Brief Primer on the Perils of Neuroscience

Byron Belitsos

Genetics may yet threaten privacy, kill autonomy, make society homogenous and gut the concept of human nature. But neuroscience could do all of these things first.

—The Economist, May 23, 2002

This is your brain, as seen by you: that familiar seat of ideas, notions, images, and dreams—the locus of your ordinary sense of self.

This is your brain, as seen by someone with common sense: the physical location of intuition, reason, imagination, and will.

This is your brain, according to the US constitution: the sacrosanct site of thought and choice—the inviolable domain for the personal discovery of truth and the private pursuit of happiness.

And this is your brain in the hands of all-too-many neuroscientists: the proximate cause of all human behavior; a nexus for conducting warfare; a target for “mind control” in times of political turmoil; and a bull’s eye for manipulation by big media, big business, and Big Pharma.

Hidden dangers lurk among the otherwise exciting advances in neuroscience, and these perils may grow without a broader awareness of its social and political implications.

But efforts along this line are tardy: “While genetics has spawned a robust watchdog industry, neuroscience has received far less scrutiny,” write the authors of a major review article in The Nation. “The latest developments in neuroscience are sufficiently unique to require a rethinking of both personal and social ethics.”1 An editorial in Scientific American quipped: “The list of moral and social issues attached to neurotechnologies is long enough to position ethicists…on a list of hot jobs that appears in the U.S. News and World Reportannual career guide.” 2

In 1990 President George H.W. Bush had declared the nineties to be “The Decade of the Brain.” And yet, until only a few years ago, the National Institute of Mental Health had established no budget for the study of neuroethics, and few universities had pursued the subject. The discipline’s true inauguration may been in 2002 when Stanford University cosponsored a pioneering conference with the Dana Institute. 3 A large increase in academic papers followed, and the Neuroethics Society was established in 2006.

But more is needed than mere academic debate within the paradigm of mainstream science. Keeping powerful new neurotechnologies out of the wrong hands will, first of all, require careful journalistic scrutiny. The increased public awareness will hopefully lead to improved democratic oversight, especially of the far-reaching military and law enforcement applications of neurotechnology noted later in this article. But just as important will be the pursuit of a more holistic model of the brain and its relationship to consciousness and the mind.

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